All Unexpected Journeys Start Somewhere

What it's like to be a beginner trying to learn aerial

I’ve never done a pull-up in my life. So what exactly possessed me to drop ~$280 per month on aerial classes, an acrobatic dance-sport predicated on your ability to haul yourself far enough up a pair of nylon strips to tie the silk fabric in knots around your limbs, flip around, do some graceful poses, and then lower yourself back down? Which, regardless of what you’re imagining in your head, essentially reads as: pull-ups, pull-ups, and more pull-ups. It’s a question that I will be trying to answer in these blog posts, my aerial diaries, which hopefully will document my exotic journey to peak strength and flexibility, but could just document another failed experiment and waste of money (adding it to the list of my unused month of ClassPass, my annual Whitney museum membership, yarn that is still waiting for me to knit it into a hat, etc … )

So far I’ve been to a total of four Beginner Silks classes at Aerial Arts NYC at 35 bucks a pop, one back in November and three in the past two weeks. As I write this post I am preparing to descend from my office in Hell’s Kitchen down to the dark, rainy, foggy streets of NYC to walk 40 minutes across town for my fifth Beginner Silks class. While I wish I could say that I am eagerly and energetically looking forward to maybe, finally, getting myself to do a V-legged invert from the ground, the truth is that I am slightly hungover. My main concern is whether my muscles will be too full of toxins to even be able to hold onto the damn silks tightly enough to lift my body one centimeter off the ground. My stomach is also giving me hints that it would prefer it if I stay upright.

Molly Tries to Invert from Molly Schwartz on Vimeo.

Despite the growing mainstream popularity of aerial acrobatics, when I tell people I’m going to aerial class, they generally have no idea what I’m talking about. Then I say, “like in Cirque du Soleil,” and they respond with something like, “ohhh, wow!” This makes me feel a combination of pride at their mental image of me gracefully contorting my muscular body and embarrassment at how far this mental image is from the truth. Comparing my stiff, quivering, halting attempts to climb at least halfway up the fabrics before saying, “I can’t lift myself anymore,” is about as close to what happens in Cirque du Soleil as describing a child driving a Barbie jeep as that thing people do in NASCAR.

Here’s the thing about moving your body up, up, up aerial silks as gravity drags your body down, down, down: it requires some serious upper body and core strength. As I try to control, suspend, and extend different pieces of my body in strategic ways that ideally look cool, my main concern has been preserving enough reserve bicep strength during a given exercise to prevent me from falling on my face from 25 feet up in the air. Needless to say, it’s been a challenge.

But, even though the odds are stacked against my success, there are a few things that keep me refilling my passes and clicking “Book the class” on my Mind-Body app. One of them is that my credit card information is already saved in Mind-Body, so it feels more or less like spending monopoly money. There’s also the fact that, in each aerial class so far, I’ve had at least one moment of holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-my-body-just-did-that-I’m-a-strong-and-powerful-gravity-defying-glamazon. And you only need one moment of that pure, ecstatic, endorphin infused rush of doing something you never thought possible to keep coming back for more. As I feel my body changing, literally morphing, from one class to the next, I feel like I have a lot to learn from aerial  mentally, spiritually, emotionally. It’s about more than just how to knot silks around my feet in a way that will keep me safe as I do suspended splits in the air. It gets to the core of process and work, change and agency. If I can make my body do impossible things (like a pull-up), how will that affect the way that I view the world and myself in it?

I also appreciate the way that aerial makes me take my body into account in a way that nothing ever has before. Each and every time I lift my body off the ground, I need to reckon with the fact that every bit of it  the dense bones and the blood-filled veins and the fibrous muscles and the fluid-filled organs  every little piece that keeps my body miraculously moving and digesting and breathing throughout the day, they all have a weight and a dimension that I need to account for and respect. As I leave class with my fingers so fatigued that I literally struggle holding my keys tight enough to open the door to my apartment, I have to contend with the fact that it’s me and my body (plus all the thousands of microbes living in my gut), all for one and one for all, for the rest of my life. So we might as well swing from the skies and have some fun while we’re at it, even if we look stupid doing it.